The only two remaining seeded players in the Dubai Duty Free, Garbiñe Muguruza and Elise Mertens, will play each other in the semi-finals after making remarkable comebacks on Thursday against Aryna Sabalenka and Jessica Pegula.
In the first set, I was rushing too much. I tried to be more aggressive, as well, because when you have someone in front of you that is trying to win the point in a couple of shots, I have to be faster and stronger. I tried to be as dominant, and then everything was more equal, and I felt more in every points. Garbiñe Muguruza
Both had to overcome on-song opponents, who dominated the opening sets before being outclassed.
Muguruza beat Sabalenka, the No 3 seed from Belarus, for the 2nd time in 2 weeks, 3-6 6-3 6-2, in a slug-fest of a match that saw the 9th-seeded Spaniard winning 5 straight games in the decider as she completed her victory in impressive fashion.
Mertens, the No 10 seed from Belgium stared down 3 match points to end American Pegula’s stunning run of form, 5-7 7-5 6-0.
Muguruza, a former World No 1 trailed a near-flawless Sabalenka by a set and a break but found her way past after an hour and 44 minutes of enthralling tennis.
“She has a strong game, and I was just excited to play for the semi-finals,” Muguruza said in her post-match press conference. “I wasn’t thinking too much about our last match beyond just knowing how to play.
“It’s another match, and everyone can win at the end of the day. Nobody cares who won last week.”
Eager to avenge her Doha loss, Sabalenka withstood an early assault on serve and saved 2 break points to quickly move ahead 5-2, clinching the opening set on her 2nd chance.
“I felt like she came out today more aggressive than our last match in Doha,” Muguruza said. “I felt like she wanted to play more aggressive, faster, serving big, and I kind of struggled to find my shots, my game, and she quickly broke me with the serve and took [the first set].”
Although the Belarusian opened the second with another break, Muguruza began to assert herself, breaking Sabalenka’s next 2 service games to take a 3-1 lead and winning her final 3 service games to seal the set with a love hold.
After a trade of breaks in the first 2 games of the decider, Muguruza earned a double break in the 5th and 7th games and closed out the match with a hold to love.
The near-perfect Belarusian of the first set won 85% of points off her first delivery, but as she was eventually pushed to her limits and effectively unravelled as this dropped to 50%.
Meanwhile, Muguruza converted 5 of her 11 break point opportunities and upped her game to win 80% of points off her first serve for the match.
“In the first set, I was rushing too much,” Muguruza added. “I tried to be more aggressive, as well, because when you have someone in front of you that is trying to win the point in a couple of shots, I have to be faster and stronger.
“I tried to be as dominant, and then everything was more equal, and I felt more in every points.”
Muguruza, still seeking her first trip to the Dubai final, picked up her WTA-leading 16th match-win of the season by firing 23 winners, outpacing her 20 unforced errors, while Sabalenka had 26 winners but saw her unforced error count creep upwards and she finished with 34 miscues.
The 22-year old Sabalenka was disappointed: “I just didn’t cope with the pressure,” she admitted after the match. “For now, I’m really emotional, so it’s tough to say anything positive.
“I’d like to just take the first set, think about the negative things and try to improve them because this is the second time in two weeks I’ve lost to the same opponent.
“I feel like I didn’t learn the lessons and made the same mistakes, so I need to improve the weaknesses in my game.”
In the end it was Muguruza who proved the steadier.
“I knew it could go fast in either direction because of the way we both serve and how aggressively we play,” Muguruza said. “I felt like there was a key game in each of the sets that made a difference, so I was just happy to stay strong, even when she came back and broke me.
“I thought, ‘She plays great, and it can happen,’ so I wanted to stay close in the score, stay calm, and take my opportunities.”
Standing between Muguruza and a 3rd WTA final in 4 weeks will be Mertens, a former Australian Open semi-finalist, who fell behind by a set and 5-2 to Pegula but pulled herself back from 3 match points down.
Pegula, the World No 36, who dropped just 2 games on Wednesday while defeating 2nd-seeded Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, looked to be continuing the momentum as she took the first set 7-5, but after the American was broken to love serving for victory and later failed to convert 3 match points on her opponent’s serve, she fell away.
On Pegula’s 3rd match point, the sideline graphics errantly came alight as Mertens put in a second serve, forcing a let and for the point to be replayed.
The American was unhappy about the decision, expecting Mertens to re-start the point with a second serve, not a first serve, but because there had been an interference during a point, the rules call for a new ‘whole point’ to be played, which includes two serves.
The unfortunate event sparked a downward spiral for the 27-year-old, who was not able to regain her focus, and Mertens took full advantage, ruthlessly racing through the decider, which she took with a bagel.
The unfortunate Pegula claimed only 9 points in the deciding set against the No 10 seed.
“I just didn’t want to let it go,” Mertens told press following the comeback win. “I kept on fighting and that was the spirit today,”
Muguruza last played Mertens in the first round the 2016 US Open, where she rallied from a set down to drop a second set bagel and survive in 3 sets.
“At that time, I didn’t know much about her, but now, I definitely know more,” Muguruza said. “I’ve seen her play, and she’s a tough player who has already won some tournaments.
“I’m just looking forward to the semifinals because I love this tournament. I’ve been coming here for many years, and if she’s in the semi-finals, it means she’s a dangerous opponent!”
Earlier in the day, Czech former WTA doubles No 1 Barbora Krejcikova defeated wild card Anastasia Potapova from Russia, 6-0 6-2, and plays Jil Teichmann in the semi-fianl, who defeated another wild card, American teenager Coco Gauff, 6-3 6-3.
After coming from a set down to win 5 of her last 8 matches, Gauff didn’t have another comeback in her against the Swiss in Thursday’s nightcap match.
It was the 3rd meeting this season between Teichmann and Gauff, and the Swiss had lost the first two, falling to the 16-year-old in the first round of the Gippsland Trophy and the Australian Open.
Since then, though, she has gone 10-2 in matches won, making the quarter-finals or better in her last 3 tournaments, and notching her 2nd straight semi-final showing with her first win over Gauff in 73 minutes.
Teichmann did not face a break point in the opening frame, and clinched the pivotal service break to lead 5-3 after Gauff netted a forehand, then holding to love to claim the 1-set lead.
With Gauff on the back foot, a break in the first game of the second gave Teichmann more momentum, and the Swiss withstood the American’s only 3 break point chances of the match before gritting out a tough service hold for 3-1.
Teichmann broke serve one more time to close out the match and reach the first WTA 1000 semi-final of her career.